7 ways to upsell your customers

By Mark Plumlee

To maximize the success of your business and get the most out of every transaction for your restaurant, your servers need to know how to upsell.  

As any salesman worth his salt will tell you, upselling is an effective way to increase boost your profits and get customers taking you up on that perfect wine pairing and your chef’s signature dessert.

Focus on high-margin items

Selling the most expensive item on your menu might increase your total cheque average, but it doesn’t necessarily increase your total profit. It’s not just about those big-ticket items. Sure, selling a $120 tomahawk steak is great, but it helps to prioritize the highest profit-margin for each of your courses.

If you’re a full-service restaurant, your alcohol, beer, and wine will provide a lot of high-margin options for your servers to sell. For your food, you’ll want to calculate the cost of your dishes, versus how much each sells for on your menu. The larger the difference, the higher the profit. It’s helpful to have a couple of high-margin items for each course and some high-margin items at different price points, so your servers can upsell to customers looking for a reasonably priced sandwich and those who want to splurge.

If you and your servers know what items have the highest profit margins, then you can help guide guests to make the best decisions, while improving your bottom line.

Train your staff

Speaking of your servers, they are an integral part of your upselling campaign. They need to be well-trained and well-informed to do their job to the best of their abilities, knowing what and when to upsell without sounding pushy or overbearing.

And this goes for each stage of the dining process. Severs should know to offer a specific, high-margin margin bottle of wine or beer on tap as soon as your guests are seated. If your guests are offered a specific drink before they have the chance to open a drink menu, they are less likely to be overwhelmed by options.

Your servers should also know to not ask general questions. They shouldn’t ask, “Can I get any appetizers for you?” Instead, they should make specific recommendations: “Would you like an order of nachos or roasted brussels sprouts while you look over the menu?”

It helps if your servers genuinely believe in your restaurant and the dishes they are selling. You should give them the opportunity to sample all of your items, especially the ones you are asking them to upsell. If a server is enthusiastic and sincere, they can steer guests toward those highly profitable dishes without sounding like a used car salesman.

Engineer your menu

Menu engineering is a technique that allows you to subtly guide attention toward items you would like your customers to choose. There are many strategies to consider, from where you put your high-margin dishes on your menu, to what items and dishes you want to highlight with larger or more brightly coloured fonts.

You can help support your servers by providing pictures of the items you would like them to upsell. Not only will this help your servers be able to describe the dishes’ ingredients and flavours, but it will make it easy for guests to see the dishes for themselves.

Don’t forget to consider the movement of your customers’ gaze as they scan your menu. You can encourage your customers to pause over certain cocktails or entrées with eye-catching frames or labels like “house favourite” or “chef’s choice.” Also, consider your menu’s hotspots. If you use a one-panel layout, your guests’ attention will naturally be drawn to the top of your menu. If you use a two-panel layout, your menu hotspot is at the top of your second panel.

All of these little tricks can help you influence your guests without them even knowing it. But, of course, you’ll need a menu that allows for this subtle persuasion. If you don’t consider yourself a graphic design guru, or if you simply don’t have the time to create a new menu, there are plenty of DIY online menu templates. These templates are visually appealing and offer enough styles to match any brand and they’re easy to customize and engineer.

RELATED: Your menu pricing strategy can help your restaurant get ahead

Speed up your appetizers

With appetizers, timing is everything. On a busy Friday or Saturday night, your customers will likely have to wait for a table. By the time they are seated, they are ready to eat, and you can use your appetizers as a way to get food to them faster.

Your server should know to stop by the table as soon as guests are seated to suggest one or two specific appetizers. If your server seems on top of it, your guests will be more likely to order an appetizer while they think about their entrée.

If your customers weren’t planning on ordering appetizers, this tactic allows you to sneak in an extra course, giving your servers the opportunity to upsell one of your higher-margin apps. Best of all, this upselling technique looks like high-quality customer service.

Sweeten your dessert pitch

Your customers want dessert, even if they don’t know they want it; your restaurant just needs to give them more opportunities and reasons to say yes.

Desserts are the tastiest way to upsell an additional course and a high-margin item, making your guests happy with something sweet at the same time. A little forethought and menu engineering can pay big dividends. Whether it’s a giant pizookie or a finely crusted crème brûlée, a couple of well-placed photos are sure to draw attention.

If your customers don’t want dessert or coffee at your restaurant, maybe they will want it later, so make sure your servers are offering coffee and desserts to go. Often, customers want something after dinner, but they are too full from their main course. If you offer to box up a slice of chocolate cake or gourmet churros, your servers still get a chance to upsell, and your guests still get to enjoy dessert on their own time.

Offer extras

It’s the most common question in the upselling game: “You want fries with that?” Even if you don’t serve burgers, asking your guests if they want extra add-ons is a great way to incorporate higher-margin ingredients into all of your dishes.

From grilled chicken on a Caesar salad or bacon and deep-fried jalapenos on your ultimate grilled cheese sandwich, extras make sense for your business and they allow your customers to customize your dishes. Make sure your servers are highlighting your menu’s extras.  

And who can eat pizza without beer? Who wouldn’t enjoy a nice pinot grigio with their Chilean sea bass? Offering beer, wine, and cocktail pairings is another smart way to make sure your guests are getting the best possible dining experience by exploring all that you offer. Like your other extras, drink pairings can be highlighted on your menu and recommended by your servers.

Promote on social media

As a restaurant owner, you know the power of social media. It’s one of the most cost-effective ways of driving business and increasing brand awareness. You likely already use it to promote your events, specials, and contests. You should also use it to upsell.

By posting #foodporn of your high-margin items, appetizers, cocktails, and desserts, you can increase the chances of customers ordering those items, making upselling a cinch.

Your followers don’t have to know that you make the most money off of the dishes you post, they just have to know that your loaded tater tots look delicious. Even if your guests don’t refer to what you’re promoting, it may be an easier sell if they recognize it from social media.

Keeping up with social media can be a chore, especially if you have to take care of the day-to-day operations of a business. You can find plenty of social media marketing templates online to help, making it easy to create new content quickly, so you can start upselling those apps, desserts, and cocktails right away.

Upselling as customer service

Upselling isn’t always easy. It requires the ability to think on your feet and read people. In the restaurant industry, upselling also requires a lot of care.

You don’t want your customers to feel like they are being badgered by your staff. Instead of thinking about upselling as a way to squeeze the most money out of your customers, think about it as a way to up your guest experience with the delicious food and drinks your business has to offer.

For a restaurant, upselling should look like focused customer service. If it doesn’t, your customers will likely be turned off, and your business will miss out.  

Mark Plumlee is the Sr. Editor for MustHaveMenus, a DIY design and digital marketing service for restaurants, and has written for CRFN and many foodservice publications on food industry trends and technology.